|Gregory XII -- The last pope to abdicate|
I feel angry and abandoned
Being prone to anger anyway, I have been particularly under the power of that emotion during the past few days. I am angry about what's happened – very upset. I also feel let down by the Pope, and fear that his ‘resignation’ will prove to be the gravest threat to the Papacy since it was established by Our Lord nearly 2,000 years ago. And I am serious about that.
What I am about to write is personal. I am not trying to argue one thing or another and I apologise beforehand if the handful of people who read this blog – which is merely a vehicle for the ramblings of a nobody – get offended by what I am about to say. I still respect and admire the Pope, which makes this post particularly difficult to write. But I do feel the need to express my anxieties and feelings concerning Benedict XVI’s radical and unprecedented decision to abandon the profoundly sacred ministry entrusted to him by God.
Sometimes, renouncing the Papacy is necessary
I accept that it is entirely possible – and sometimes desirable – for a Pope to renounce the Throne of St Peter. For various reasons, a tiny number of popes have abdicated in the past. If a Supreme Pontiff were to be severely incapacitated – imprisoned, insane, or in a permanent vegetative state, for example – then resignation from the Petrine Office would probably be commendable and necessary. Sometimes, as in the case of Pope St Celestine V, men who have been elected to the Papacy are not suitable candidates for such high office. Saints and hermits are often too holy for such a political and demanding ministry as that held by the Supreme Pontiff.
Celestine V abandoned the See of Rome only five months into his reign. He knew from the very start that he was, as he had been most of his life, called to the eremitic life -- not the papacy. He had the courage and wisdom to leave early on – within months, not years. He also had a calling, which had been proved, to the hermitage. (I don't think, especially so late in life, that Joseph Ratzinger has a similar calling -- only he knows that now, though his successor may have to confirm it.) And yet, Celestine's abandoning of the precious flock of Jesus Christ caused a lot of pain and anger at the time – Dante even placed him in Hell for his ‘great refusal’ (Inferno III, 59-60). Thankfully for Pope Celestine, his sanctity was eventually recognised by the Church, and he was canonised – despite the concerns of men of letters, like Dante Alighieri.
There have been one or two other ‘great refusals’ in the history of the Church. One pope left in order to get married; another may have abandoned the flock due to apostasy; whilst Gregory XII abdicated in order to heal the Great Schism. The latter example was something that had to be done for the good of the Church – and everyone knew why he was doing it at the time. He was a legitimate pope, but one of three claiming to be the Successor of St Peter. He stepped down as Vicar of Jesus Christ so that the Church could elect a man who would be acceptable to all. There were no secrets or hidden agendas -- it was the right thing to do.
Was it necessary for Benedict XVI to resign?
But why has Pope Benedict XVI abandoned the flock which the Holy Spirit entrusted into his care? What is the grave reason behind his decision? Obviously, we do not know for sure. The Church isn’t experiencing a Great Schism, so it can’t be for that reason. He, as a man, isn’t particularly severely impeded – he can’t be that weak / unable to hold office if he spent an hour yesterday making off-the-cuff, and highly intelligent, if not demob happy, remarks to the clergy of Rome! From what I have read and seen, he seems lucid; and, although physically frail, he is able to get about and perform certain functions (including Wednesday's Mass in St Peter's).
Even if he couldn't move much or was gravely ill, or whatever, I firmly believe that the / a pope doesn’t have to be a celebrity, travelling from one global function to the next – there is nothing wrong with just being the Successor of Peter; unseen, rarely seen, or hidden away and allowing others to do all the work. This is what most popes have done over the centuries.
Better a Renaissance pope than a resigning one
The Bishop of Rome is a man who provides a focus for the Church’s unity – being is just as good as doing. The ministry of Peter is about faith in Christ and his Church, not so much the works of a particular man. For that reason, I have more respect for the Renaissance popes, despite their many weaknesses, than I do for those who seem to abandon Christ’s flock for very little reason – better a carnal man with several mistresses, but who knows the importance of the office he holds as an invaluable focus of ecclesial communion, than a saintly man who is more concerned with his own sanctification than he is with the wider Church and her sacred unity.
Over the past few days, most Catholics I have spoken to have been shocked, saddened, and extremely hurt by what Pope Benedict XVI has done. Many, including myself, have even been scandalised by the resignation – I can honestly say that the Pope’s ‘great refusal’, or his ‘getting down from the Cross’ as Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz put it (even if he was explicitly referring to Blessed John Paul II when using the term in relation to Benedict XVI), has been the greatest challenge to my faith. Yes, the Pope's abdication has (though this might just be the shock and anger speaking) really shaken my Catholic faith ... Why bother, if Peter can't be bothered? It has raised many questions, too, and has led me to doubt the whole Petrine Ministry. And I know I am not alone in this. About half the people I have spoken to seem to share my fears and feelings.
Many in the Church are in denial or shock
Many Catholics are still in a state of shock or denial concerning what Pope Benedict XVI has done. Some even think it is a good thing – a precedent that will 'liberate' the papacy from Catholic ‘mythologizing’. Needless to say, quite a few of those who are rejoicing now were the ones who were furious when Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope. Many orthodox Catholics, on the other hand, often view popes – whoever they may be – through rose-tinted glasses. No pope could ever be / do wrong as far as they’re concerned. So, they deny the obvious and go on cheering Benedict with those terrifying words: ‘Tu es Petrus!’. But have they stopped to consider: Who is Peter? What is Peter? Can a man be Peter (the rock) today, and just another Joe Bloggs tomorrow?
I am very concerned that the Papal resignation will have dire consequences for the Church. It has already set an unwanted precedent – it’s now ok for a shepherd to abandon his flock, for a father to walk out on his family! Also, there are already murmurings of discontent amongst the Cardinals – not just lowly characters like me.
Benedict XVI's future plans are unrealistic
John Allen Jr (I can't find the link) has already written that some members of the Church’s hierarchy think it would be better to send Benedict XVI into exile after 28 February – no Pontiff wants his predecessor sitting in his back garden. Yet, as I mentioned the other day, if the present pope were ever to leave the security of the Vatican, I am more than convinced that someone, somewhere, would seek his arrest or would successfully name and subpoena him in a messy lawsuit. The Church has serious enemies – and the coup of having ‘a pope’ (even if he won't technically be one by then) on trial (or even imprisoned) is just the kind of thing they have been dreaming about.
It also seems to me, and most of those whom I have spoken with, that Benedict XVI’s decision is partly grounded in fantasy. The renunciation and his future plans appear unrealistic, even if he might be, due to some serious illness, not much longer for this world. The Pope seems to think that he can dictate now what will happen after he has been divested of his present authority. Already, he has made it known that he will live in a four-story building in the Vatican; he will have his own court; and, even though he apparently wants to live a secluded life of prayer, he will have an Archbishop as his private secretary! Does he really think that the next Pontiff will put up with a rival court in his own back-yard? By the end of March, Joseph Ratzinger will be at the mercy of his duly elected successor – who may have his own plans for his predecessor’s living-arrangements.
Great confusion for no reason
Yesterday, a school-teacher told me that the Pope’s resignation had caused confusion amongst his pupils – one of them had asked: ‘If the pope is a good man, why has he left like this?’ The resignation has also caused unnecessary chaos for millions of adult Catholics, who ask themselves similar questions. The way the Pope resigned, so quickly, with hardly any mention of the Lord or his Church, and no apology to the family he is walking out on, seems shameful – almost egoistical -- to many loyal Catholics.
I, too, feel so hurt by the way Pope Benedict has gone about his renunciation that I can no longer bear (at the present time, at least) to look at him on the television or in the newspapers – and I was once one of his greatest supporters! (But, as I said at the beginning of this post, I can be quite an emotional fellow!) Some have asked: ‘Why didn’t he just go straight away?’ It is bizarre to have to experience this surreal situation whereby we have a Pope who, like a retiring US President, is just sitting out the last few days of his presidency. This is one of the strangest times in the Church's entire history: We have a pope, yet we don't have one. Soon we'll have a living, yet 'dead', Peter.
The resignation has also raised several practical questions, which no-one in the Vatican seems able to answer. This suggests to me that the whole thing wasn’t properly planned at all -- despite the fact that we now know the Pope has wanted to retire for some time. But life demands a certain amount of reality and practicality -- we need to know what will happen to the Pope once he’s gone. Will he still wear white, for example? What will happen to his ring of office, will he ever appear in public, will he be given a Papal funeral, what about his security and safety?
A more important question is the 'schism problem'. Will his presence possibly lead to schism during the next pontificate? What if his successor kicks Summorum Pontificum into the long-grass, for example? Will some Catholics then question the validity of Ratzinger’s resignation and refuse to acknowledge the new pope? All these questions – and many more – need to be answered… But no-one really knows the answers. Some claim to know. But they don’t. The Barque of Peter is sailing, rudderless, into uncharted waters -- in human terms, at least. Thankfully, Our Lord remains at the real helm till the end of time.
An unwanted gift for the Year of Faith
The other night a friend texted me these words (or words to the effect): ‘What does the Pope’s resignation say about his faith, especially seeing he couldn’t be bothered to stay on till the end of the Year of Faith?’ It is a valid question. Why leave now? Couldn’t he have waited till the end of the Year of Faith? Why leave when there is unfinished business – such as consolidating the place of the Ordinariate within the Church, or writing the long-awaited encyclical on Faith? It seems to many as if the Pope just ‘can’t be bothered’ anymore, maybe he doesn’t want to be Peter, maybe his faith has weakened, or maybe he unrealistically thinks he can end his days as a private citizen – a temptation which I am sure has plagued many popes.
Servant of the servants of God?
Several people have told me that they have felt abandoned by this resignation – as if their father has walked out on them. These feelings are real for many, and they are raw. Yet I don’t think the Pope was aware of the fact that his decision would lead to great emotional and spiritual suffering and turmoil amongst the faithful. If he was, then his decision to leave the great ministry entrusted to him by God seems 'selfish' – especially as he appears healthy and able (again, popes don’t have to be globetrotters, etc), and that he may go on to live for some months or years yet. (The official line seems to be that the Holy Father isn’t suffering from any serious ailments – despite feverish Roman rumours to the contrary.) In light of the pain and confusion, and (for some, at least) scandal, this resignation has caused, I think the Church deserves an explanation, if not an apology.
Finally, some people have told me that the Pope is a very private individual and that it’s not fair to expect him to be open about himself or any worries or problems he may have. But the Successor of St Peter is not a private person – he is actually a very public one. Benedict XVI is also a man who will be forever linked to his great phrase: the Dictatorship of Relativism. By seeming abandon the flock without a proper good-bye or explanation, or to give in to personal needs before higher principals, it seems to me -- as well as to thousands, if not millions, of silent souls -- that the one who preached against the dictatorship of relativism has now fallen under its spell.
For now, though: He is Peter!